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The Last Samurai
by Helen Meservey

So how does Tom Cruise strike you as a Japanese samurai warrior?

If you give him the chance, he’ll strike you for 2 hours and 45 minutes in The Last Samurai, the latest warrior epic by director Edward Zwick. The film opened nationwide a month ago and is still playing in local theaters.

Bearing comparison in spirit to Dances With Wolves and even Lawrence of Arabia, The Last Samurai stars Cruise in the role of western warrior who comes to respect and embrace the ancient traditions of his noble enemies.

The year is 1876, and Cruise’s Nathan Algren is a decorated American military officer who is haunted by his role in the savagery of Custer’s Last Stand. Reluctantly, Algren agrees to be dispatched to Japan to teach the emerging imperial army to fight like western soldiers and quash the rebellion of indigenous samurai warriors. He is soon captured by them, however, and spends several months in captivity in a remote village where is nursed and tended to by the family of the samurai leader. Here, he discovers the traditions of honor and the practice of humility and compassion that has advised Japanese culture for centuries.

If it all sounds a little formulaic, you’re getting warm. In addition to the internal metamorphosis we know enough to expect, there’s also a beautiful widow to contend with, a pair of adorable kids and a hothead warrior, subservient to the top gun, who would just as soon have the enemy’s head as his surrender. There is the inevitable showdown between Algren’s new enlightened samurai self and his past deeds, and you can expect more than one great spiritual deliverance for more than one character.

But even with its predictability and unevenness, The Last Samurai is entertaining and even quite beautiful. The costumes and the sets are great fun to see, and the scenery is stunning: There are beautiful shots of snow capped mountains and busy 19th century agricultural villages tending to their daily routines. There is also a brief scene in historic San Francisco, where trolley cars trundle up and down the famous hills toward a bay that has long yet to be fit with a Golden Gate Bridge.

Even so, the saving grace of the film is the depiction of the samurai way, most notably through warrior chief Katsumoto, played Ken Watanabe. Powerful yet humble, Katsumoto personifies the samurai code, or Bushido, which considers honor, discipline, bravery, and service to be the very height of life’s callings. In fact—and this point is made plain on more than one occasion—a true samurai would gladly take his own life if his lord desired it.

Where Tom Cruise fits into all of this is at the box office. His winsome smile and leading-man charm do serve to bring some of this history into the narrow American focus. But this story, as the title reveals, is not so much about the samurai as with the last of them. And that is, after all, an American concoction.

For KUSP, this is Helen Meservey.